British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was anxious about the spread of a Covid-19 variant from India and ruled no measures out as statistics showed cases more than doubled in the past week.
“We are anxious about it, it has been spreading,” Mr Johnson said on Thursday, referring to the B16172 variant. “There’s a range of things we could do. We’re ruling nothing out.”
Cases of the new strain have risen to 1,313 from 520 over the past week, Public Health England said.
Authorities are carrying out surge testing in places such as Bolton, in north-west England, where cases have been detected, and parts of London, the authority said.
Mr Johnson’s comments raise the prospect the government may be forced to slow its plans to open the economy from a third coronavirus lockdown.
That could put him at odds with members of his Conservative Party, who have been pushing for a faster reopening amid one of the world's most advanced vaccination programmes.
“Why on earth would we lock down when the vaccines continue to break the link between cases and hospitalisations and deaths?” asked Steve Baker, chairman of the party’s Covid Recovery Group.
“We were told the roadmap was cautious, in spite of the overwhelmingly promising data on the benefits of the NHS vaccine roll-out, precisely so it would be irreversible.”
The third stage of the government’s four-step plan to unlock the economy is due on Monday, when people will be allowed to meet indoors in homes, pubs and restaurants.
Cinemas and theatres will be allowed to reopen and international holidays will no longer be illegal.
A final phase of reopening is planned for June 21 at the earliest, when the government hopes to be able to lift most remaining restrictions.
For now, Mr Johnson said he was not concerned about the timetable slipping.
“We’ve already been very clear that we will be led by the data,” he said.
“At the moment I can see nothing that dissuades me from thinking we will be able to go ahead on Monday and indeed on June 21, everywhere.”
Ministers are considering bringing forward planned second vaccine doses, the Department for Health and Social Care said late Thursday.
At present, the UK allows up to 12 weeks between first and second doses.
“While there is no firm evidence yet to show this variant has any greater impact on severity of disease or evades the vaccine, the speed of growth is concerning,” the department said.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the government “will not hesitate to take further action if necessary".
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